I was introduced to a new concept last month by way of an article in WORLD Magazine. The article, in the January 14 issue, is titled, “Setting Their Own Limits,” and the concept is “unschooling.” Despite being involved in Christian education, having a master’s degree in educational leadership, and (I think) staying pretty current on trends in education, I had never heard this term or of the idea the term represents.

The first two sentences of the article, written by Grace Howard, should provide you with a good introduction of what unschooling is all about: “For Bethany Drury, an Iowa State University senior, school was whatever she wanted it to be. She was ‘unschooled’–a homeschooled child with complete control over her education.”

Howard describes Drury’s unschooling education as being focused on horses, the outdoors and veterinary skills, with Drury spending time watching National Geographic specials on television and reading books from the library on her favorite subjects. All of that was probably quite fun for Drury, I imagine, but the challenge came when she reached college. By her own admission, there were subjects that she had not been interested in or wanted to spend time studying as she grew up, so she was not ready for the challenges of math and chemistry in college.

While the concept of unschooling is difficult for me to fathom, what completely blows me away is that Howard quotes the National Center for Education Statistics as estimating that one-third of the homeschooled children in the U.S. are actually unschooled. That translates to somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000 children who are calling the shots on their education (or lack thereof) and spending all of their time doing whatever their little hearts desire.

Howard defines unschooling as giving “children complete control over their subjects, schedule and interests. If children do not want to learn science, they do not have to. If they enjoy art, literature, or computer programming, they can spend all their time pursuing that subject.” The article goes on to quote one unschooling mother who has written this on her blog: “The goals of unschooling are different than all the other methods. … The goal of unschooling is not education. It is to help a child be who she is and blossom into who she will become. … Learning happens as a side effect.” Howard goes on to explain that the most “radical forms” of unschooling carry this principle ever further, allowing children to exercise this same freedom in every aspect of their lives, including mealtimes, bedtimes, and chores. The unschooling mother quoted above, Joyce Fetteroll, has explained that parents should let children make their own decisions and thus “sculpt their own lives,” with parents “giv[ing] them what they want.” She continues, if “they are happy and free and are making these choices because it brings them joy, then we should trust that it really is what they want or need right now. … We need to trust that when it is enough for them, then they will stop. Their ‘enough’ may be different from where ours is.”

Well, I tell you what…I can pretty much guarantee you that their enough will be different. It would be for any child! I understand that there can be some compelling arguments made for letting children pursue things that interest or fascinate them, to follow their natural bent. But there can also be some compelling arguments made that children need to be introduced to things that are not naturally appealing to them, that parents need to train and teach their children certain expectations and requirements of life. Not only do I have two children of my own, but I have worked with children for my entire adult life, and I can only imagine the things that most children would do, and how they would spend their time, if they were left completely on their own to decide. I think it is safe to suggest that their eating habits would favor junk food at the expense of vegetables, their recreational activities would tend toward video games and indoor activities at the expense of legitimate exercise, and their sleeping habits would tend toward staying up quite late and waking up even later.

Since the very idea being discussed here is an alternative form of education, perhaps it would be helpful to define exactly what education is. Wikipedia provides this deifnition: “Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts. In its narrow, technical sense, education is the formal process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills, customs and values from one generation to another, e.g., instruction in schools.”

Whether or not instruction takes place in schools–and I have no problem with the notion of homeschooling, by the way–I find it difficult to believe that aims and habits can be passed on by letting children do whatever they want, whenever they want. I certainly struggle to see how knowledge, skills, customs and values can be passed on. After all, unschooling mother Elissa Wahl has says she lets her children do “whatever they want. … If they want to learn about rockets for 5 years, or 5 minutes, that’s okay with me.” So, perhaps a child who wants to learn about rockets for 5 years–or 15 years, for that matter–would become a brilliant scientist or engineer, but at what cost? Would that child truly have received an education? Only in the very narrowest sense, I would suggest. Furthermore, I would go on to suggest that the child that is left to pursue his own interests to his heart’s content has been deprived of an education by not being exposed to other fields of study, taught how to interact with others, and trained in how to develop and use his intellectual gifts.

This notion of letting children pursue their own interests is another of those proverbial slippery slopes. After all, suppose a child decides he wants to pursue something that is not acceptable for whatever reason? Then what does the parent do? Because when someone suggests that a child should be permitted to do whatever he or she wants it is extremely important to think about just how big a word whatever really is. And, in case you missed it, the very nature of my question–about a child choosing to do something that is unacceptable–is built on the presupposition of there being a right and a wrong and that one or more persons will pass on to each generation some understanding of what right and wrong is.

One of the classic ways for political scientists to explain the concept of personal rights and how eventually the rights of the individual may conflict with the rights of another individual or of society is to say it like this: your right to swing your fist ends where my nose starts. But again: says who? Doesn’t that also presuppose a right and a wrong? Doesn’t that presuppose that parents and/or society will pass on to each generation the understanding that there is a limit to individual rights? But if we do that–if we limit anyone’s activity in any way–we are necessarily saying that it is not okay to do whatever you want.

In order to tell anyone that it is not okay to do something though we have to tell the person that there is a limit to what they can do. That is not a terribly profound statement because it is a restatement of itself, but it is important to recognize the consequences of our ideas. And since I suspect none of the parents who are “unschooling” their children would sit by quietly and let their child continue to choose to cause his fist to make contact with the nose of his sibling, neighbor or parent, there is no parent who really thinks his or her children should be allowed to do whatever they want to do. And…brace yourself…since no one really thinks that, there is no parent who does not believe that it is necessary and important to educate their children. In other words, unschooling doesn’t really exist. The question is simply what kind of education to provide, where and how to provide it. More on that next time….

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